In 1997, as Lynda Branch was serving her 11th year in prison, Joe Church, a vice president of Merrill Lynch in St. Louis, was attending his 20th high school reunion at St. Thomas Aquinas Mercy High School in St. Louis. When he couldn’t find Michelle Hendrickson, an acquaintance from high school, in the crowd, he asked her cousin where she was. He was shocked to find out that Hendrickson had shot her husband after years of abuse and was now in prison.
“I took an interest in it because I didn’t think it seemed right or fair to just send her to prison,” Church said.
Church started his work with a notepad and a pen. “In the beginning, I spent about 15 to 20 minutes a day at work making phone calls and taking notes,” he said. “I was amazed at the ripple effect of sitting down with a pen and a paper and doing a little work every day.”
He contacted Dessie Earl, a battered woman who was convicted at age 75 of killing her intimate partner in 1991 and was released on parole four years later. While in prison, Earl had met several other battered women who had killed their husbands or intimate partners and were serving long sentences. Together, Church and Earl put together a list of women they wanted to help.
After talking to people at several women’s shelters in St. Louis, Church was told to call Colleen Coble, the head of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a nonprofit corporation representing organizations that provide domestic violence services in Missouri. Church couldn’t believe it; the two had lived in the same neighborhood growing up, but then Coble moved away. He had not seen Coble since she was 17. Now 20 years later, the two reunited and got to work.
Church contacted the law departments at St. Louis University, Washington University, University of Missouri-Kansas City and MU and asked them to participate. The deans and professors at the law schools did not need much convincing, and before long the four law schools and the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic Violence created the Missouri Clemency Coalition. It was the first time all the Missouri law schools had worked together on a project.
Law students and professors screened cases, interviewed clients, conducted investigations and, as a final step, selected 11 women whose cases they would champion in clemency petitions.
The women were selected because their sentences reflected the courts’ failures to do justice, at least in part because of the exclusion of evidence of domestic violence, Coble said.
The petitions asked the governor to grant each of the women a commutation, which is a form of clemency that reduces a prison sentence. All of the petitions argued that the domestic abuse the women endured was a mitigating circumstance in their crimes.
Lynda Branch’s case was one of those chosen.
Lynda suffered 11 years of physical, emotional, verbal and psychological abuse from her husband, Raymond Branch. During drunken fits, he beat, kicked, burned, raped and shot at her, she said. In another episode, her husband killed her cat and hung it from the rearview mirror of her car.
But all the while, Lynda tried to hide the abuse, especially from her daughter, Tammy.
“There are people in the state of Missouri that have killed police officers that have served less time than Lynda Branch,” Church said.
Amy Lorenz-Moser and Amy Young, two MU law students, were given Lynda’s case. Mary Beck, a professor at MU’s School of Law and Lynda’s current attorney, oversaw their work. Success would mean a reduction of Lynda’s sentence from life without parole to life with parole and a chance to get out once a minimum amount of time had been served.
The clemency coalition presented all the petitions to Gov. Mel Carnahan just 10 days before he died in a plane crash. His successor, Gov. Roger Wilson, chose not to act on them. Finally, on Nov. 24, 2004, Gov. Bob Holden granted a commutation to one of the women on the list — Lynda.
“It was the best thing in the world,” Lynda said. “I thought I would be home for Christmas.”
A little more than a month later, Holden commuted the sentence of another woman on the list — Shirley Lute, who was serving 50 years for killing her husband and at 75 is the oldest woman incarcerated in a Missouri prison.
Lynda thought she might be out of prison within weeks. And then she learned that her hearing from the Probation and Parole Board had been set for June 1, 2005, six months away.
She began preparing, although she had been assured that in cases like hers a release followed hard on the heels of a hearing.
“I just thought it was a routine procedure, more like a formality for the board to explain what I needed to do for my parole,” she said.
Lynda expected to be asked about what classes she had taken and what violations she had accumulated while in prison. She had completed classes in computer science and office skills. Lynda had been free of violations for three months at the time of her hearing.
A few days before the hearing, Lynda called Beck and told her to not bother coming for the hearing. “I said there is no reason for you to drive two hours from Columbia to Vandalia just for a five-minute hearing,” Lynda said.
“I’ll be fine,” she remembers saying.
What Lynda did not know was how she was about to face a changed landscape.
A new governor, Matt Blunt, had been inaugurated in January 2005, succeeding Holden. A new chairman for the Probation and Parole Board, Dana Thompson, was in the process of succeeding Denis Agniel, the chairman who served when the board recommended Lynda’s commutation to Holden. And a new law had been enacted in 1994 requiring inmates to serve 85 percent of their sentence.
In its letter rejecting Lynda for parole, the board did not cite worries about her readiness to rejoin society. “Release at this time would depreciate the seriousness of the present offense based upon the following: circumstances surrounding present offense, use of a weapon, and use of excessive force or violence,” the letter read.
“You will be scheduled for a reconsideration hearing 06/00/2008,” the response from the Probation and Parole Board read.
In tears, she called Beck and Coble. Then she called her son-in-law, Roger Hartley, and told him that he would have to tell Tammy. Lynda could not find the words to let her daughter down one more time.
But she refused to give up. She began doing legal research in the law library and compiling a list of women given life sentences who had been released within 10 to 20 years.
“She wasn’t done with it, and she’s still not done,” Coble said. She says Lynda always takes the initiative and is always asking about the next step.
Lynda appealed the Probation and Parole Board’s decision but was notified that the decision was not subject to appeal because it was a majority vote. “But most of that majority were the ones who sent the recommendation to the governor for my commutation to begin with. So what happened between now and then?” Lynda asked with frustration. “The board chairman changed.”
Thompson, current chairman of the board, and Reid Forrester, a board member, were the two new variables in the equation. Neither was on the board in November 2004 when the board sent Holden the recommendation that Lynda’s sentence be commuted.
“How could you make a good recommendation to the governor for me to be released and me be granted a commutation by the governor and then you say oops, she’s not good enough to go, she needs a three-year setback?” Lynda wanted to know.
When a clemency petition arrives in the governor’s office, it is sent to the Probation and Parole Board so that the board can make a recommendation to the governor. The governor’s office then conducts an investigation examining the nature of the crime and any mitigating circumstances.
Neither Thompson nor any members of the current board would comment on the case.
At Lynda’s bidding, Coble and Beck turned their attention to the next move. They spoke with Omar Davis and Tarry Jared, both legal counsels to Blunt, and asked them to re-issue the executive order that was originally made by Holden.
Coble received an answer about a month later from Davis, explaining that in the absence of any legal precedent of a person receiving two clemencies, the governor would not take action.
“The grant of clemency in itself is a very extraordinary action, but to have it done twice is unprecedented,” Davis said. “Because they (the clemency coalition) chose that tactic, they have put themselves in a position where any succeeding governor will say, you’ve been given what you have asked for.”
Coble’s first reaction was confusion. She’d never asked the governor to grant a second clemency, she said.
“We were just asking Gov. (Matt) Blunt to take action in whichever way he saw best for Lynda to be released,” Coble said.
Blunt was not available to answer questions for this story. However, a spokesman for the governor, Spence Jackson, said that if Holden “wanted these women set free, he should have given them a pardon,” he said. “As it stands, we have no intention of intervening in the role of the Probation and Parole Board.”
But a pardon is a very different legal mechanism, said David Cosgrove, who worked as legal counsel for Holden and remembers Lynda’s case. A pardon says that society forgives the individual for the crime, while in a commutation, a governor uses his power to change the punishment that has been given.
“When you have a commutation, the governor isn’t saying you didn’t do it or shouldn’t be punished,” Cosgrove said. “Instead, he is saying that because of the amount of time served, the facts of the case and the trial, what was the level of knowledge of the battered women’s syndrome, how effective was your defense attorney and that because of these reasons — I am reducing your sentence to a life sentence with the possibility of parole.”
Holden said he believes crimes like Lynda’s cannot be looked at as other crimes are. All of the circumstances need to be considered.
The former governor, who now teaches leadership seminars in the business school at Webster University in St. Louis, said the parole board’s role was to answer the question of whether she is ready to re-enter society.
“They don’t need to re-investigate the reason why she was sent to prison because that was already done by the courts and by me,” he said. “I seriously question the reasoning they have behind this.”
Coble expressed surprise at learning that someone who had received a commutation was still in prison.
“I think they made the wrong decision,” Coble said. “I think they were seeking additional retribution, and I don’t believe it’s their role.”
Holden said that he hoped what occurred with Lynda’s case was not a result of political partisanship. “But I think the divide here is the people who think you put people in jail and throw away the key and the people who look at the whole crime and see if these people deserve to get out now because they have been rehabilitated,” he said.
Sean O’Brien, an attorney and law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said it appears as though the Probation and Parole Board applied the wrong guidelines for parole to Lynda’s case.
In 1986, the minimum time served before a person with a life sentence was eligible for parole was 15 years. According to the board’s regulations manual in 1986: “For inmates serving life sentences and for inmates with sentences of 45 years or more, the Board considers the deterrent and retributive portion of the sentence to have been served when the inmate has completed 15 years of the maximum sentence.”
Today’s statute, which was enacted in 1994, put the minimum amount of time a person should spend in prison at 85 percent of his or her sentence before going before the board. So a person serving a life sentence, which is 30 years, is required to serve 25.5 years, or 85 percent, before going before the parole board under the new statue.
O’Brien, executive director of the nonprofit Public Interest Litigation Clinic in Kansas City, makes the argument that the laws in place in 1986, the year that the crime was committed, should apply to Lynda, according to a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court prohibiting states from passing ex post facto laws. An ex post facto law is a law that changes the punishment and inflicts a greater punishment than the law in place when the crime was committed.
“A commutation reduces the sentence,” Cosgrove said. “What sentence are we talking about? The sentence received in 1986, so once you apply Holden’s commutation, you have a life sentence as applied in 1986.”
By applying the current parole guidelines to Lynda, the punishment is greater because the minimum amount of time to be served for a life sentence in 1986 was 15 years — not the 25.5 years now required. By that calculation, Lynda has now served over four years more than the minimum amount required in 1986.
Still, the parole board has discretion; how much is the question.
According to a 1993 letter from Cranston Mitchell, chairman of the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole from December 1985 until December 1999, it is “board policy” to implement changes that “may be beneficial to the inmate population retroactively.” The letter was written to another inmate, Betty Coleman, who received a commutation when Lynda did and is still serving time, though she has a release date of Oct. 21, 2008.
Although the board has never made it explicit, O’Brien believes the board is applying the new guidelines to Lynda and will make her serve 25.5 years, and that would mean a release in 2011. “They think they can get away with holding people for 85 percent of their sentence no matter when the crime was committed, and I don’t think they are right about that,” O’Brien said. “I think they need to be sued, frankly, because in my opinion, it’s illegal as hell.”
It is difficult to successfully sue a parole board because courts are reluctant to interfere with the discretion of a board, particularly when that discretion is granted to them by statute, O’Brien said.
The Ohio Parole Board was sued, however, by Ohio prison inmates in a class-action lawsuit in April 2005 for unjustly penalizing some inmates sentenced under an old law by holding them to new guidelines and denying them parole. The inmates won, and new parole hearings were granted to approximately 2,700 of them.
Both Holden and Mitchell said the laws in place at the time of the crime are supposed to be used, not the laws in place now.
“They shouldn’t start the clock again on my clemency,” Holden said.
Beck said she thinks the board has a specific bias against domestic violence victims who have killed their husbands. She cites the fact that there are men and women in Missouri who have been convicted of murder in the last 20 years who have been paroled after serving less time than the domestic violence victims the clemency coalition represented.
While in prison, Lynda has had plenty of time to think.
She thinks about how she has changed.
“If I ever had the possibility again to be married, the first time someone hit me I would be gone,” she said. “They wouldn’t have a second time or second chance. There would be no, ‘I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again’.”
She has learned that if a man hits you, he doesn’t love you and he doesn’t even love himself, she said.
“I hate that my life has been wasted in the penitentiary and that I missed my daughter’s graduation and wedding, my grandkids’ births, my mom and dad’s funeral,” she said.
Tammy, who is now married and has two children, said the hardest part has been having her children meet their grandmother in a prison. “My children asked me why Grandma’s house is so big,” Tammy said.
Lynda said: “I’m hoping the parole board will reconsider what they have done and change this and let me go home, and if not, then either we proceed and fight them or I go back in 2008 and hope they grant me a date. Give us a date -— that’s all we want, a reasonable date.”
But for now, Lynda remains in her tan uniform known as prisoner number 83699 sitting in a jail cell and dreaming of the day she will walk out the prison gates and never look back.
CHANGES TO PAROLE BOARD
Missouri Department of Corrections, Board of Probation and Parole Board members in November 2004 (when Lynda Branch received her commutation, and the board gave a recommendation to Gov. Bob Holden about Lynda):
- Fannie Gaw
- Ansel Card
- Penny Hubbard
- Joel Jeffries
- Robert Robinson
- Wayne Crump
- Denis Agniel, chairman from December 1999 to June 2005
Board members in June 2005 (when Lynda went before Dana Thompson, a parole analyst, and a parole supervisor. The hearing was taped, and the entire board reviewed it and made a decision):
- Fannie Gaw
- Ansel Card
- Penny Hubbard
- Robert Robinson
- Wayne Crump
- Reid K. Forrester
- Dana Thompson, chairman from June 2005 to the present